Georgia House announces committee chairs for 2021-22 term

Georgia Rep. Shaw Blackmon

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives got some new committee chairmen Wednesday, as the chamber’s Committee on Assignments promoted some committee chairs to more prestigious chairmanships left vacant by departing members.

The Ways and Means Committee, which handles all tax legislation, will now be headed by Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire. He will take over from former Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, who lost his bid for re-election last fall.

Blackmon’s former chairmanship of the Governmental Affairs Committee will be assumed by Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville.

Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, will move over from the House Education Committee to chair the Transportation Committee. Former Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, left the House last year in an unsuccessful run for Congress.

Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, will take over as the new Education Committee chairman.

With the retirement from the House of former Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton, Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, will take the reins of the House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee.

Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross, is the new chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. He’s replacing Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, who is moving over from Judiciary Non-Civil to chair the other House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over legislation related to civil law.

And in a rare move, a Democrat is going to chair a committee in the Republican-controlled House. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, will chair the committee that oversees MARTA.

Most House committee chairs for the 2021-22 term will remain unchanged, including Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn; Economic Development & Tourism Committee Chairman Ron Stephens, R-Savannah; Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications Committee Chairman Don Parsons, R-Marietta; Health & Human Services Committee Chairman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta; Higher Education Committee Chairman Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta; Natural Resources & Environment Committee Chairman Lynn Smith, R-Newnan; Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell; and Rules Committee Chairman Richard Smith, R-Columbus.

“We have a dynamic group of leaders joining the ranks of our committee chairmen this year,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who chairs the Committee on Assignments. “I appreciate their willingness to serve this House and the citizens of our great state.”

Ossoff, Warnock join U.S. Senate as Biden becomes president

Then-U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff (left) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) of Georgia bump elbows on the campaign trail in Atlanta during their runoff races. Ossoff and Warnock took office in the Senate on Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia were sworn in Wednesday hours after President Joe Biden was inaugurated the nation’s 46th commander-in-chief.

With Georgia’s two new senators now seated, Democrats have control of both chambers in Congress and the White House for at least the next two years until the 2022 midterm elections. Ossoff and Warnock, both Democrats, unseated Georgia’s incumbent Republican senators earlier this month, marking the first time since 2002 that Democrats will occupy the state’s two Senate seats.

Ossoff and Warnock took the oath of office with newly inaugurated Vice President Kamala Harris, who became the first woman and person of South Asian descent to hold the nation’s second-highest office. Harris campaigned several times in Georgia ahead of the Nov. 3 general election and Jan. 5 runoffs and now holds a tie-breaking vote in the Senate thanks in large part to Ossoff’s and Warnock’s wins.

Georgia Democratic leaders showered Ossoff and Warnock with praise shortly after they took the oath of office from the Senate floor late Wednesday afternoon.

“With today’s swearing-in, our Senators are ready to deliver on health, jobs, and justice for all Georgians,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia. “I know they will make us proud.”

Ossoff, a 33-year-old Atlanta native who runs an investigative journalism company, is now the youngest Senate member and Georgia’s first Jewish representative in the chamber. He defeated former U.S. Sen. David Perdue by 54,944 votes in the Jan. 5 runoffs, limiting the Republican to a single term.

Warnock, a Savannah native and senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, becomes the first Black senator after preaching from the same pulpit once held by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He ousted Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler by 93,272 votes, ending her tenure barely a year after she was appointed to fill the seat vacated by retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Warnock will need to run again in 2022 for a full 6-year term since his current tenure only covers the final two years of Isakson’s term.

The Democrats’ wins came after Biden beat former President Donald Trump in Georgia by 11,779 votes in the Nov. 3 general election, becoming the first Democratic candidate to carry the Peach State since 1992. At his inauguration Wednesday, Biden called on Americans to focus on unity and truth after the divisive four years of the Trump administration.

“We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” Biden said. “Disagreement must not lead to disunion … I will be a president for all Americans.”

Record-breaking turnout in the Senate runoffs solidified Georgia’s position as a battleground state with closely fought elections for at least the next decade and drew the eyes of America and the world, summoning nearly $1 billion in campaign and outreach spending along with visits from dozens of celebrities and national politicians.

Both Democrats overcame fierce Republican attacks seeking to by Perdue and Loeffler to paint them as socialists, a campaign strategy many political analysts agree failed as Ossoff and Warnock stuck with more hopeful messages on health care , criminal justice, workers’ rights and the COVID-19 response.

Perdue, a former corporate executive from Sea Island, and Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, were also hamstrung by their loyalty to Trump as the outgoing president trashed Georgia’s election system following his election loss. Both Republicans conceded defeat earlier this month.

The Biden administration now faces an easier road to appointing Cabinet members and passing legislation with Democratic majorities in both chambers. Nonetheless, the new president has pledged to take a moderate approach and work with leaders on both sides of the aisle.

“Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause: The cause of democracy,” Biden said at Wednesday’s inauguration. “At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

Veteran Georgia Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a Republican, was also sworn in Wednesday to another six-year term in a ceremony at the Jackson County Courthouse. He defeated Democratic challenger Daniel Blackmon by a narrow margin in the Jan. 5 runoffs.

Economic development agency seeking marketing funds to bring back Georgia tourism

Visitation to Alpine Helen has been strong despite the pandemic.

ATLANTA – Georgia’s chief business recruiter Wednesday pitched a $1 million plan to resurrect a tourism industry suffering massive losses since coronavirus-fearing travelers stopped taking vacation trips and attending business conferences.

The boost in tourism marketing funds recommended in Gov. Brian Kemp’s $26.3 billion mid-year budget would be used to double down on current efforts to convince Georgians to keep their travel plans in state, Georgia Commissioner of Economic Development Pat Wilson told members of the state House and Senate Appropriations committees during a second day of budget hearings.

The money also would go toward marketing Georgia tourist attractions in neighboring states and – once the pandemic eases – reaching out to draw visitors from farther afield, Wilson said.

Georgia’s tourism industry, which accounted for $69 billion in annual economic impact before the COVID-19 outbreak, has lost $11.7 billion since the pandemic hit, Wilson said.

“Travel industry losses are significant and they’re driving up our unemployment numbers,” he said. “If you back out travel and hospitality, we’d practically be at full employment.”

Wilson said having adequate resources for tourism marketing is going to be critical after vaccinations are completed and the pandemic has run its course.

“This is going to be a competitive market,” he said. “Every state around us is going to put in a tremendous amount of money to do the same thing.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Steve Gooch suggested the economic development agency work with the outdoor recreation industry on tourism marketing.

“The RV industry probably had their best year,” said Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “COVID-19 drove people out of the cities and up into the hills.”

Indeed, many state parks have enjoyed record visitation during the pandemic.

“[The parks] were one of the few safe places where people could get out of their homes … and get some exercise,” said Mark Williams, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which runs the parks system.

Wilson said the economic development department is working with the U.S. Travel Association to bring back conventions, which the pandemic ground to a halt. Some of the proposed $1 million tourism marketing appropriation would go to promote Georgia as a host site for conventions that would be held using safety guidelines, he said.

“There are safe events we can do,” he said.

Wilson said tourism has started to rebound in some parts of Georgia even amid the pandemic, notably Helen and Savannah.

“As vaccines continue to move out through the state, travelers are going to feel more comfortable,” he said. “You’re going to see them come back.”

Georgia facing pandemic-driven jury trial backlog

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton

ATLANTA – The suspension of jury trials in Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic has created a substantial backlog across the court system, Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Melton ordered jury trials suspended last March as the virus broke out across the Peach State, the first in a series of judicial emergency orders he has issued every month since.

The backlog of cases that has piled up won’t go away, even when all Georgians who want COVID-19 vaccinations have received them and the pandemic eases, Melton told members of the state House and Senate Appropriations committees during the second day of budget hearings.

“It can easily take a year to two years to dig out of a jury trial backlog,” he said.

Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett of Augusta said it might even take as long as three years to get rid of the backlog, even though courts resumed jury trials for six to eight weeks last year at a time COVID-19 cases were on the decline.

“Whenever they’re allowed to resume, we’re going to be busier than ever,” Padgett said.

A silver lining in the suspension of jury trials is that the delays helped the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) clear nearly half of the roughly 46,000 cases backlogged in the agency’s crime lab, GBI Director Vic Reynolds told lawmakers. The backlog now stands at about 24,000 cases.

Reynolds said the GBI benefitted from outsourcing drug identification and DNA tests to private labs and shelved old cases on advice from local police agencies. GBI scientists also had more time to finish lab tests with jury trials suspended.

“That’s still too high,” Reynolds said of the remaining case backlog. “But I’m very proud of the fact that we cut those numbers down some 20,000 over the course of 2020.”

GBI’s crime lab looks to be spared any cuts to its $41.7 million  budget request, while officials have asked state lawmakers for about $4 million to replace several dozen vehicles and around $500,000 to boost the agency’s gang-fighting staff and tracking database.

Reynolds also detailed how low salaries for GBI medical examiners compared to other states and even counties like Cobb and Fulton have led to turnover that has driven up autopsy caseloads for local doctors far above national averages. Officials still have not replaced Macon’s retired medical examiner, whose departure in October forced the office to close.

“We need some help,” Reynolds said of the low salaries.

Like the GBI, the state Department of Public Safety (DPS), which runs the Georgia State Patrol, had a busy 2020 with officers tapped for guard duty at protests over racial injustice during the summer and over election results in recent weeks.

With around 1,000 sworn troopers on patrol statewide, DPS Commissioner Chris Wright said his office is working on incentive plans to pay for college degrees and offer communications training to retain more mid-career staff who have left for local police agencies.

Wright took charge last October after a cheating scandal among trooper trainees ousted former DPS Commissioner Mark McDonough. The agency is asking lawmakers to support nearly $3.2 million for a new 75-person trooper school and $56 million in bond funds to replace its Atlanta headquarters.

“Our agency has proudly served and protected during the most difficult time in modern history,” Wright said Wednesday.

With tight budgets this fiscal year and next, Georgia’s prison and juvenile detention systems are asking lawmakers to approve 10% pay raises for staff. State Corrections and Juvenile Justice department chiefs outlined plans to use existing funds and freeze vacant positions to pay for the salary hike.

“These are living wages that people can come to work and earn a decent living right now,” said Georgia Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward.

COVID-19 has hit both agencies hard since March. Juvenile detention centers saw 413 staff members and 121 youth offenders test positive for the virus. State prisons reported 1,444 staff and 2,956 inmates tested positive, including 89 deaths.

The pandemic prompted prison officials to release thousands of low-level offenders last year, reducing the state’s roughly 55,000-inmate count in January 2020 to about 8,500 as of this month, Ward said. He expects the prison population to climb back to previous levels once the pandemic eases.

State budget restores funding for growing K-12, university enrollments

State School Superintendent Richard Woods talks to reporters at a news conference last year. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Full funding of student enrollment growth after a year of budget cuts would come as a great relief to Georgia’s public schools, the state’s top K-12 education official said Tuesday.

Many schools are still holding classes online to discourage the spread of COVID-19, a challenge for teachers pushing to keep students from falling behind on their coursework, State School Superintendent Richard Woods told Georgia lawmakers during a hearing on Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget recommendation for the state Department of Education.

“The learning loss continues to be something that we’re going to look at,” Woods said. “We’re committed to make sure that no child falls behind in our state.”

The governor is calling on the General Assembly to restore about 60% of $950 million cut from this year’s K-12 education budget due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

 Enrollment is down by about 36,000 students in schools across the state, though Woods said officials are still trying to determine those numbers. He said younger pupils likely account for most of the enrollment drop.

 The pandemic showed an estimated 80,000 households statewide with children in schools lack reliable internet access, Woods said. State officials have tapped federal coronavirus relief funds to install WiFi signal extenders on local school buildings and around 3,000 school buses in a bid to close the internet gap, he said.

Georgia school districts have also served more than 111 million meals to students with help from food banks since March, making local schools “probably the largest food-delivery service in the state,” Woods said.

 On top of restoring the cuts, Woods has asked lawmakers for more money to pay school counselors.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that addressing students’ mental and physical health and wellbeing is an urgent need,” he said.

Woods also requested $5 million to cover costs for schools to administer year-end tests after federal officials denied Georgia’s request to skip the tests this year because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

With state tax revenues coming in stronger than expected during the current pandemic-driven recession, Kemp also is recommending full funding for enrollment growth at Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

The governor’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget proposal includes a net increase of $131.4 million in the University System of Georgia’s operating budget. The system’s capital budget earmarks $104.2 million in bond funding for seven major building projects on campuses across the state.

Legislative budget writers also heard Tuesday from Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, who asked for $780,000 to increase starting salaries for middle managers and rank-and-file employees in his agency.

“These heroes put on masks and went to work every day,” he said. “They didn’t stop.”

Black also requested $453,000 for Georgia’s hemp farming program. The General Assembly legalized the growing, processing and transport of hemp two years ago.

Black said the program has drawn a lot of interest from farmers but needs more funding to reach its potential.

“We’ve got to allocate the resources to make sure this program can grow,” he said.

Tuesday kicked off three days of hearings this week on Kemp’s budget recommendations. Members of the Georgia House and Senate Appropriations committees will continue hearing from department heads on Wednesday and Thursday.

Ossoff, Warnock set to join U.S. Senate as runoff wins are certified

U.S. Sens.-elect Jon Ossoff (left) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) bump elbows while campaigning in Atlanta during their runoff races on Dec. 14, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

U.S. Sens.-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia are set to take office after results of their Jan. 5 runoff wins were certified on Tuesday.

The Democratic soon-to-be senators will give Democrats control of both chambers of Congress and ease the way for President-elect Joe Biden to push his incoming administration’s legislative priorities for at least the next two years.

Ossoff and Warnock unseated Georgia’s incumbent Republican senators earlier this month, marking the first time since 2002 that Democrats will occupy the state’s two Senate seats.

They could take office as soon as Wednesday, the same day as Biden’s inauguration. Gov. Brian Kemp first needs to approve the election results Georgia Secretary of State Brad certified on Tuesday.

Ossoff, an Atlanta native who runs an investigative journalism company, defeated former U.S. Sen. David Perdue by 54,944 votes in the Jan. 5 runoffs, limiting him to a single term.

Warnock, a Savannah native and senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, ousted U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler by 93,272 votes, ending her tenure barely a year after she was appointed to fill retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat.

The Democrats’ wins came after Biden beat President Donald Trump in Georgia by 11,779 votes in the Nov. 3 general election, becoming the first Democratic candidate to carry the Peach State since 1992.

The runoff outcomes were historic beyond party lines. Warnock is poised to become Georgia’s first Black senator and Ossoff will become the state’s first Jewish representative in the Senate.

With voter turnout at nearly 4.5 million, the runoffs solidified Georgia’s position as a battleground state with closely fought elections for at least the next decade and particularly in 2022, when Kemp will likely face Democrat Stacey Abrams in a rematch of the heated and close 2018 gubernatorial election.

The two Senate races drew the eyes of America and the world to Georgia over the two months after Warnock and Ossoff forced runoffs against their opponents, summoning nearly $1 billion in campaign and outreach spending along with visits from dozens of celebrities and national politicians.

Both Democrats overcame attempts by Perdue and Loeffler to paint them as socialists too extreme for conservative Georgians through fierce attack ads that sought to tie Ossoff to communist China and portray Warnock as anti-police.

That campaign strategy failed, according to several local analysts who credited the two Democrats for focusing on more hopeful messages that elevated key issues like health care, criminal justice, workers’ rights and the ongoing COVID-19 response.

Perdue, a former corporate executive, and Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, were also hamstrung by their loyalty to Trump as the outgoing president trashed Georgia’s election system following his election loss. Both Republicans conceded defeat earlier this month.

With Congress poised for Democratic majorities in both chambers, the Biden administration now faces an easier road to appointing Cabinet members and passing legislation until at least the 2022 mid-term elections. Biden has nonetheless pledged to take a moderate approach and work with leaders on both sides of the aisle.